Saving the Heirloom

By Hannah Sturtecky | Published by the Columbia Missourian

Gardeners work to rescue Ivan, a tomato that is now returning the favor

By Allen Fennewald

ASHLAND — Jerry Schuerenberg went to Vietnam in 1968 and came back broken.

He didn't talk much about his year as a helicopter pilot during the war. Although his family could tell something was wrong, he never admitted he was hurting until he had a stroke. As he healed, Schuerenberg found peace in the humid space of his greenhouses.

There, he took particular care with a rare heirloom tomato known as Ivan, which had been cultivated for generations by his family.

Tending plants like this meaty tomato, the rare Schuerenberg family breed, became a way for him to heal. When he died in 2013, the tomato nearly died with him.

It wasn't until a group calling themselves Victory Gardeners picked up the pieces and Schuerenberg's hardy little tomato was plucked from almost-certain obscurity. The group's three members call themselves the Ivan Tomato Rescue Project.

With their project, the Victory Gardeners hope to sell Ivan tomato seeds and plants, rescue other dying varieties and inspire a little hope and healing. Collaborating with Schuerenberg's family, the project donates 10 percent of sales to programs that rehabilitate veterans by using agricultural therapy.

Schuerenberg's family lives in a white two-story house on a scenic piece of land in the rolling hills outside of Ashland. Four greenhouses, built at the edge of the front yard, were Jerry Schuerenberg's domain.

According to Becky Whitworth, one of his daughters, every morning the broad-shouldered field farmer would methodically pour a thermos of coffee, put on his faded tan overalls, pull a hat over his curly gray hair and lumber out the door.

Every day he watered and weeded his plants, transplanted them into larger containers, or just sat at his favorite picnic table with the family's German shepherd, Duchess. 

Her father was given to internalizing his memories of Vietnam, Whitworth said, and his doctor recommended a hobby to keep him calm and occupied as he healed.

Members of his family drove Schuerenberg around the countryside, gathering seeds from wildflowers and other plants. Schuerenberg devoted himself to the hobby, and in a few years had upgraded the family's small garden to two greenhouses. Heartland Family Nursery was born.

After the stroke, Schuerenberg moved slowly and more deliberately. His daughter said he would stop at 10 a.m. to take a nap and be back in the greenhouse around noon. By then, what began as a hobby had turned into a full-scale business, with bulk orders and customers around the country.

At its height between 1998 and 2003, the Heartland Family Nursery was one of the most popular stands at the Columbia Farmers' Market, offering a wide variety of plants, flowers and many heirloom species. Schuerenbergwas known for giving handfuls of sunflower seeds to kids.

A born teacher, he also loved sharing his hobby with his family. Plus, he needed their help getting the plants to market. His grandkids started visiting the greenhouse while still in strollers and frequently came to assist their grandpa with his chores.

When he died, everyone found it difficult to pick up where he had left off. His daughters had already moved on from the Columbia Farmers Market to pursue their own careers. The Ivan tomato he had so carefully cultivated was abandoned.

Yet, despite its uneven history, the sturdy tomato has always found a champion. The Ivan is known to produce up to 50 pounds of tomatoes from one plant. It naturally adapts to Missouri's ever-changing weather, that often includes drought, rain and extreme summer heat.

The fruit from the Ivan is sweet, juicy and more flavorful than the average grocery store tomatoes produced commercially in Florida and California. It can even withstand hungry, persistent pests.

Finding Ivan

In 2015, three local gardeners discovered there was no longer any available source for Ivan tomatoes. They learned that the Schuerenbergs had closed their business, and the seeds had died in the heat of the greenhouse. 

The gardeners — Laura Flacks-Narrol, Jordan Casey and Curtis Hess — had founded a company called Victory Gardeners to support a collective seed-saving venture. Ivan could be the centerpiece of their effort.

Flacks-Narrol, the marketing and business manager from Toronto, Canada, is an unlikely gardener. After backpacking through Europe and the Middle East, she moved to Missouri about 20 years ago. At first, she called herself a classic $30-tomato gardener, referring to her investment in growing each one.

"I’d grow a tomato because I liked the name of it, because it had a nice picture, because the description sounded good," she said.

"I wasn’t getting really good yields, and I was getting a lot of disease, and I refused to use hybrids, and I refused to use chemicals, so if bug infestation came, they ate it."

She knew Schuerenberg from the farmers market and remembers him as a beloved figure whose health had deteriorated until he couldn't run the stand any longer.

Then seven years ago, she went to a concert at Cooper's Landing on the Missouri River where someone from the Schuerenberg family was peddling plants.

"I told her my story of tomato death, and she said, 'Oh you have to try my family Ivan Tomato. It’s the strongest tomato. You won’t have any problems.'

"So I said, 'Great, let’s try the Ivan.'"

That season, the Ivan flourished in Flacks-Narrol's backyard, producing more tomatoes than she knew what to do with. Because she didn't know how to save seeds for the next season, she wasn't able to grow any Ivan tomatoes the next year.

The next time she ran across Ivan tomato plants, she bought three and learned to save seeds from a YouTube video.

No one else seemed to be working to preserve the Ivans, so she decided to stake her claim.

The rescue project

Flacks-Narrol collected Casey and Hess, two nature-loving, born-again hippies, to help her cultivate the tomatoes. She had gotten to know the two childhood friends at a music festival.

A year ago, the trio became the Ivan Rescue Project.

Casey is a millennial farmer who inherited land outside Boonville from his father. That's where he grows plants for Ivan seeds. He has also built greenhouses out of windows salvaged from buildings to be demolished for student apartments downtown, in which Casey and Flacks-Narrol grow plants in their backyards.

Hess, who has a theater background, is the most comfortable on camera and has become the face of the project with his big grin, long hair and bush hat.

In a world that increasingly relies on standardized commodities, the Ivan Rescue Project wants to increase genetic diversity in the food chain by keeping species from extinction.

According to the United Nations, 15 plants make up 90 percent of the world's food supply, out of more than 50,000 edible varieties. A major percentage of other varieties have already gone extinct in the past century.

"It's a way of life," Hess said.

It fits within a broader movement to preserve heritage heirloom seeds, which originated four decades ago with the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Founded in 1975, the exchange sells seeds from 20,000 plant varieties online and through its catalog.

Lee Greene in Chicago has brought the rare Beaver Dam Pepper back to life. In San Francisco, Paula Shatkin is among those working to preserve the Gravenstein apple. And in South Carolina, Nat Bradford is trying to save his own family's Bradford watermelon from the brink of extinction. 

Accidental encounter

Whitworth had no idea the rescue project was underway until she hired Casey and Hess as part of a crew to paint a shed on the family property in Ashland.

Casey became curious about the abandoned greenhouses, and when Whitworth came out to offer water, they struck up a conversation.

"I've got this project where we're saving this heirloom tomato from extinction," Casey told her. 

"That's really cool," Whitworth said, "because my family used to grow 48 varieties of heirlooms tomatoes."

When he told her the project was saving the Ivan, she said she about collapsed.

"You've got to be kidding me. That's my family tomato!"

Whitworth eventually showed Casey the greenhouses, where Ivan tomato sales stickers were placed on one gallon plastic pots. Whitworth and the rescue team made plans to meet.

By the time Casey left, Whitworth said she was reeling in disbelief. This was the chance to make up for letting her father's Ivan seeds die.

"I had this sinking, sad feeling that I had let my family down because the tomato was gone. ... It was just a miracle to me."

The Victory Gardeners were also shocked by the luck.

"We were like, oh my gosh, and we realized that this was where the Ivan started," Flacks-Narrol said.

They also learned about Schuerenberg's struggles with PTSD and how he turned to gardening to heal. 

Moving forward

The Victory Gardeners started an online Indiegogo campaign and have raised $4,435 thus far, still short of their goal of $10,000. The gardeners hope one day to build full-size greenhouses on company-owned land.

Whitworth has become a mentor to the Victory Gardeners, and they have worked out a deal to use one of the original greenhouses, where funk and rock 'n' roll have replaced the country music that Schuerenberg loved.

The first year they only harvested seeds. This year they are trying to put as many of their plants in area gardens as possible, and next year Hess said they hope to concentrate on selling the fruit. They sell Ivan seeds online and plants in farmers markets. They also raise nearly a dozen other types of tomatoes, nine types of peppers and 15 herbs.

The students of the Southern Boone Learning Garden are also renting some space in the greenhouse. Some of the plants are grown to sell at the farmers market in Ashland.

Now, the project has embarked on searching for more scarce heirlooms.

"We not only want to be providers of the Ivan tomato," Hess said. "We very much want to find other plants that are locally adapted ... to growing in (this) zone that are rare, that are falling away, that are in danger of going extinct."

They hope anyone with rare seeds will contact them.

Whitworth hopes to continue her father's legacy in a different way, bringing people to the family property to share in his source of mental and spiritual relief. She dreams of building an event center, maybe a campground and a garden that anyone can tend, to share in the soothing experience that has brought both her and her father a sense of peace in trying times.

"This is really a healing place," she said. "It's just something I really want to share."